Most people understand the opposition between democracy and dictatorship. They have a general conception of what these terms mean. Yet both include multiple variations. There are a variety of dictatorships and democracies. More importantly, there are more and more states that are clearly a mixture of the two. States that can neither be defined as full dictatorship or democracies. These have received various terms, hybrid regime being the most fitting and all encompassing. But to understand how a regime can be semi-democratic we need to first have a proper definition of what is meant with the word democracy.
When people speak of democracy, they generally refer to constitutional democracy. A system where the people choose the government but one that works within certain boundaries. More specifically where a majority chooses the government, has the power, but with respect for certain (basic) individual rights and within a constitutional framework that prevents tyranny. Other terms include liberal democracy and Western democracy. For the sake of this piece, the term liberal democracy will be used.
The essential (universal) elements of liberal democracy are:
- Free and fair elections, with universal and secret ballot with the will of people being respected, without voter fraud or intimidation.
- The ability of genuine opposition politicians to freely partake in the political process
- Respect for the rule of law by the government
- The laws passed by parliament respect constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties such as freedom of the press, assembly and conscience
- A trias politica/separation of powers. The legislative branch (parliament) and the executive branch (government) are at least distinct, even if they overlap; The judiciary is fully independent with judges (even when appointed by the government or parliament) serving for a fixed term and who are independent in decision making.
Two additional criteria traditionally found in the most stable liberal democracies are:
- An open society where the government doesn’t keep relevant information secret from the people except in highly specific cases. As such they can be held accountable.
- Neutrality/fairness by state-owned media and state-controlled services during elections, where the ruling party(ies) aren’t favoured.
Three debatable criteria are:
- Majority governments trying to pursue as much consensus as possible
- Respect for minority rights beyond mere political liberties.
- The dominant party(ies) alternate rather frequently due to people freely expressing their displeasure with the ruling government and/or a desire for change.
Regime that don’t have these last 3 criteria are generally still viewed as democratic.
Consensus democracy and across the aisle politics tend be rarer in two party systems and have become rarer period.
Respect for minority rights is (partially) rejected in countries like Sweden and Germany, where homeschoolers for example are persecuted to prevent families from existing outside of the mainstream.
Certain states with a dominant party that keeps winning a majority for several elections in a row and rules by itself are never the less accepted as constitutional/liberal democracies (Japan, Botswana). In other words, while many hybrid regimes are dominant party states (Turkey, Hungary, Russia till it became more fully dictatorial), not all dominant party states can be viewed as hybrid regimes (though most are).
A more secretive government (used to be) more associated with so called illiberal democracies. A term Viktor Orbán willingly embraced. The same is true for an open and concentrated bias by the public media in favour of the ruling (dominant party)
But liberal democracy describes a democracy with frequent multiparty elections, political pluralism and a certain separation of powers that prevents extreme mobrule. Within this there is still a significant spectrum. And this can lead to definition problems…
Dictatorships are generally viewed as the polar opposite of liberal democracy, a minority group or an individual hold all the political power (as opposed to the majority) and repress any political opposition. This generally describes autocratic and oligarchic regimes. Military juntas, police states, one party states and so on.
Totalitarian regimes where the government enjoys support from the majority but outlaws minority opposition, are generally also called dictatorships, though the more accurate term would be totalitarian democracy (though some might want to preserve that term for multiparty democracies with free and fair elections where the government pursues totalitarian policies.
Authoritarian dictatorships (as opposed totalitarian ones) might not necessarily be repressive beyond prohibiting political opposition. Hannah Arendt noted that totalitarianism was revolutionary and unique in that it used violence not just against enemies of the regime but ordinary citizens.
Whether classical absolute monarchy is also classified as dictatorships or viewed as an exception outside this spectrum is completely different chapter altogether.
For now, it is important to focus on the fact that dictatorships are regimes that repress political opposition and democratic tendencies, that prohibit genuine multiparty elections or violate basic political liberties.
Most democracies have developed a more detailed application/interpretation of the first 5 points, specifically numbers 4 and 5. In virtually all liberal democracies, if parliament passes a law that violates the constitution, this can and is challenged in court and the law is struck down. In countries like the Netherlands however this is currently still forbidden however and it is left to parliament to police itself.
In the USA and Brazil (certain) federal judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the senate. In Finland the President appoints judges on recommendation of the minister of justice, in Japan it is simply the government.
As such the appointment of judges by the government or president cannot be held to be dictatorial if they’re able to judge independently after their appointment.
Yet both constitutional review by judges as well as a greater check on government power in their appointment, is often associated with constitutional democracy and this trend has led to France making it that the judges in charge of the High Council of the Judiciary were no longer appointed by the president in 1993. Even though populists (both left and right) have argued the judiciaries should be democratically elected.
This brings us to the complicated issue that liberal democracy overlaps with constitutional democracy and that checks and balances (on a majority elected government) are viewed as essential to democracy (defined as distinct from absolute majoritarianism) and yet parties and governments with majority support will be tempted to attack checks and balances as being elitist restraints on the popular will. Is it supposed to be democracy with constitutionalism, or constitutionalism with democracy? Liberal/constitutional democracy attempts to combine the majority will as the core principle, with checks on majority will as an essential principle.
There is an inherent tension and there is always pulling to have it lean more in one direction.
It often depends on who has majority support and who has the judiciary or other independent institutions on their side.
Hybrid regimes are best described as regimes with (some) genuine opposition parties, multiparty election, some open opposition manifestation and representation but less civil liberties, weaker pluralism and more concentrated power.
Hybrid regimes are sometimes treated as synonymous with semi-democracies (glass half full from the democratic perspective) and guided democracy.
In this they are distinguished from semi-dictatorships where a mostly dictatorial regime does have elections with some democratic values.
Illiberal democracy can be placed somewhere between liberal democracy and a hybrid regime. Orbán primarily used to it reject liberal democracy in as much as he was rejected (modern) liberalism in favor of Christian right values.
However, it has also become associated with a democracy that’s anti-constitutional in as much as it rejects (too much) constitutional restraint on majoritarian decision making. The judiciary may not just strike down laws passed by the majority of people’s representatives. Ironically this stands very much in the tradition of Rousseau and democracy as preached by radical left groups and yet has been embraced (to an extent) by national conservatives in Eastern Europe.
They appear to have learned from their enemies, though Orbán has thankfully limited absolute majoritarianism by ensuring 2/3 requirements remain for crucial judicial positions and important constitutional issues.
This can be associated with populism and makes it the reverse of liberal autocracy where constitutionalism was high but democracy more limited. That is extremely classical liberal (and as such not very democratic).
Dictatorships that don’t properly complete a democratisation process tend to become anocracies.
The term of anocracy seems to have developed to refer mainly to unstable regimes with a mix of democratic and dictatorial elements that haven’t reached a consistent balance (yet) while semi-democratic/hybrid regimes are the ones that have achieved a consistent balance.
In anocracies a dictatorial remnant starts to actively repress during a partial democratic transition and this leads to worse human rights violations. Anocracies are (or appear to be) transitioning regimes while hybrid regimes are stable, which is why they tend be associated with more positive concepts like semi-democracy, guided democracy and illiberal democracy.
Anocracies tend to be amongst the most civil war ridden and human rights violating countries in the world. The worst of both worlds. Hybrid regimes attempt to combine the best. Whether they succeed… we’ll see…
- Arendt 1993a.
- William R. Everdell. The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans. University of Chicago Press, 2000.
- Maplecroft 2014 Global Risk Analytics”. Maplecroft.
- Poe, Steven C; Tate, C. Neal; Keith, Linda Camp (1999). “Repression of the Human Right to Personal Integrity Revisited: A Global Cross-National Study Covering the Years 1976-1993”. International Studies Quarterly.